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For the Birds 

Funding is problematic for Saranac Art Projects, and they’ve come up with a real chicken-shit solution

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"Chickens are the most economical animal I know,” says artist Gabriel Brown. They eat anything, he explains, can exist in a small space, grow fast and provide food (eggs, meat) and fertilizer. They are the centerpiece of “Chicken Sh@#: Exploring Urban Ecosystems,” which opened on New Year’s Eve at Saranac Art Projects. The joint exhibition between Brown and Rimas Simaitis is definitely unusual and ripe with potential. Like the experimental gallery itself, which late last year converted to a co-op (not to be confused with coop… as in chicken), this show will seriously (no shit) challenge your ideas about art.

At first glance, the gallery appears to be in the midst of construction. One corner is piled high with hubcaps, another with flattened cardboard. Plants line one wall across from a wooden workbench with all the ingredients for starting your own seedlings: empty, plastic bottles; seeds; assorted tools. A nearby glass tank contains composting dirt.

“From this soil and compost, we can grow more food to eat, and give the waste back to the chickens to continue the cycle,” explains the artists’ joint statement. “While displaying a brilliant example of ecosystems, these chickens also provide us with an immediate understanding of economics… to turn waste into something of value.”

The statement helps clarify the intent of the exhibition, which, writes Simaitis in an e-mail, is a “critical examination of the urban ecosystem, ultimately exploring DIY culture, waste, and alternative means of food production.”

Chickens, food, fertilizer. Recycling. Rethinking. OK, we get it. But is it art?

“Rimas and I don’t want to go there,” says Brown.

“And once people see it, they get past it too.”

Maybe. That conundrum is inherent to reviewing contemporary, especially non-object oriented, art — installations and performances versus paintings and sculpture. This exhibition is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Simaitis’ grass-growing boxes constructed of gray wood are visually appealing. On the other, his hanging hydroponic sculpture lacks the refined aesthetic to clearly communicate the connection between form (a cast of the artist’s chest and leg) and function (a self-contained growth system). Brown’s junk table, however, is compelling, especially the odd assortment of jars — labeled Cigar Tips, Twist-Ties, Small Cut — and the sunburst image he’s created from their contents.

So is it art? It’s not enough to fall back on saying, “It’s art because I, the artist, said so,” or “… because I made it.” As this exhibition shows, we have to dig deeper. As a result, for me, this show has potential, yet feels like it’s still evolving — not unlike Saranac Art Projects itself.

Since going co-op last April, Saranac has faced challenges such as funding, accountability for operations, public relations and the overall need to “educate and inspire our community,” says member Susan Jane Hall, a WSU alumna and local interior designer.

Hall is the go-to person for some PR functions, which are otherwise handled by each exhibitor/member. That’s one downside to a co-op: creating and managing a consistent community (and market) presence with minimal resources. Thus the Website is lagging and publicity has been spotty.

They’re “still figuring it out”: That’s the message echoed by several of the artists interviewed, including Hall, Simaitis, Brown, Whitworth professor Scott Kolbo and WSU’s Nik Meisel. “What I really like is that, as a cooperative, we are able to allow artists to show more experimental or less commercial work,” says Meisel. “It takes the ‘How much work are you gonna sell to keep the doors open?’ card off the table.”

It’s a catch-22, however, since funding remains an issue. Saranac must cover more than $850 per month in facilities expenses through $40-a-month member dues and whatever artists sell. And since some of the work isn’t obviously commercial, that puts the burden on the artists.

Moreover, if the gallery is member-supported, says Bernadette Vielbig, “the community is led to believe that supporting artists by purchasing work is not necessary for their existence [or] survival.” An SFCC professor, artist and KYRS “Ready-Made Radio” creator, Vielbig exhibited with Lorinda Knight Gallery until it closed late last year. Vielbig has opted not to join Saranac.

Educating the community, many members acknowledge, is key. Kolbo points to a planned monthly lecture series at Saranac, adding that he is “really optimistic that we will be able to run a great exhibit schedule for years to come.”

Brown is equally optimistic, focusing on the opportunity to build community “during a time of economic recession. Pooling our time and resources is just more efficient, and may be the only way to get things done — especially in a city that feels like it’s been in an art recession as long as I can remember.”

“Chicken Sh@#: Exploring Urban Ecosystems,” runs through Saturday, Jan. 30, at Saranac Art Projects, 25 W. Main Ave. Open Thursdays-Saturdays, noon-5 pm (Fridays until 8 pm). “ Free. Visit www.saranacartprojects.org or call 209-2870.

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